Today the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual estimate of the uninsured. While there is always valid discussion and debate over the number of uninsured (for recent analyses click here and here), an important component that gets overlooked is the emerging trend within existing sources of coverage.

This year’s census numbers expose a troubling shift: government programs continue to gain ground while private insurance is on the decline. There are a variety of reasons for this change — including expansions of public programs, like Medicaid and SCHIP, and the early effects of the economic downturn (which cause people to lose their jobs based coverage).

Here are some of the specific highlights from this years report:

  • Although the number of uninsured increased from 45.7 million in 2007 to 46.3 million in 2008, the percent uninsured remained constant at about 15 percent of the population.
  • The percentage of people covered by private insurance fell from 67.5 percent in 2007 to 66.7 percent in 2008, as the number of people covered by private health insurance decreased from 202 million to 201 million.
  • The percentage of people covered by employment-based health insurance declined from 59.3 percent in 2007 to 58.5 percent in 2008, as the number of people with employer-based coverage declined from 177.4 million to 176.3 million.
  • The percent of people covered by government programs grew from 27.8 percent in 2007 to 29 percent in 2008, while the number enrolled increased from 83 million to 87.4 million.

These Census numbers on the uninsured and trends in declining private insurance are troubling. But, instead of overhauling 1/6 of the economy in a 1,000 page+ health care bill, Congress and the President should take a step back and focus on 1) fixing the economy to help preserve coverage for those who have it and 2) giving tax relief to individuals and families buying private health insurance on their own.